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Vol. LXV, No. 25
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
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Planning Board Votes For Cooking Classes In Historic Farmhouse

Anne Levin

Marcia Willsie wept last week after the Regional Planning Board voted to allow her to resume teaching cooking classes at her historic farmhouse on Mercer Road. These were tears of joy for Ms. Willsie, a trained chef who began holding cooking class dinner parties at her home in 2008 but had to halt them a year later when Township officials stepped in to clarify regulations regarding home cooking classes and home-based businesses.

The Planning Board’s unanimous vote followed overwhelmingly positive testimony by Ms. Willsie’s neighbors and a member of the Township’s Historic Preservation Commission. Three years after opening Ezekiel’s Table, the business she named after one of the earliest owners of the 300-year-old farmhouse near the Stony Brook Quaker Meeting House, Ms. Willsie can now get back to work.

Her neighbor Allen Kassof was the first at the meeting to voice enthusiasm for Ezekiel’s Table. “This is more of a warm neighborhood gathering place than a business,” he said. “There is no noise. There is no nuisance to the neighbors.”

Next to speak was Catherine Kurtz Gowen, a member of the Township’s Historic Preservation Commission. “Contrary to anything troubling, we found the use was well within the words and spirit of the Historic Preservation Ordinance,” she said. “This is an ideal use of historic property. It really furthers the objective in having the public appreciate historic buildings.”

Ms. Willsie was overwhelmed not only by these comments, but by the unanimous support of the Planning Board as they cast their votes.

“When Allen spoke I was quite touched, and it was a struggle not to cry,” she wrote in an email this week. “Then when the Historic Preservation Commission representative spoke on our behalf, I was even more moved as they are known to be a difficult group. Still, I was keeping it together. But when the Planning Board panelists’ names were called one by one, as I wrote to a friend on my Ezekiel’s Table facebook page, ‘Each yes felt like a hammer against my resolve not to cry. Then the resolve just fell over.’ I guess I suddenly felt the three years.”

It has been a long road for Ms. Willsie and her husband Bruce, who moved to Princeton from Seattle in 2006. The couple had lived in Princeton as young marrieds while Bruce Willsie was an undergraduate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, and had often thought about returning to the area. During a 1999 business trip to Princeton, he saw and fell in love with the house.

“My husband always wanted to retire here,” said Ms. Willsie, sitting at her kitchen table this week. “When he saw this house, he thought it had good bones.”

The Willsies purchased the property in 1999 and began a meticulous restoration, which took nearly two years. Architect T. Jeffery Clark, a former president of the Historical Society of Princeton, oversaw the project. They added a class-size kitchen to the house, which sits on three-and-a-half acres overlooking Stony Brook.

A devotee of locally grown and raised foods and an enthusiastic cook, Ms. Willsie had attended the Seattle Culinary Academy when her daughter was a freshman at Princeton and her son was in high school. She moved to Princeton with her son in 2006, a year before he enrolled at the University. Ms. Willsie’s husband followed a year later. It wasn’t long before she began holding cooking classes in her new kitchen.

“People have forgotten how to cook,” she said. “Studies have shown that doing a dinner party rates higher for stress than getting an emergency root canal. I realized that people are too nervous to have fun doing dinner parties. This is a way to change that.”

Ms. Willsie’s cooking class dinner parties are limited to eight people and have included couples, “girls night out” groups, birthday party celebrants, and children. Collaborating on the menu and theme with a host who provides the guest list, she charges $75 to $100 per person depending on the choice of dishes, Everyone, even the most reluctant guests, helps prepare the meal. “People pair up, but usually not spouses,” Ms. Willsie said. “I try to make the menus flexible so people who want to follow recipes to the letter can do so, and those who are more ambitious and want to get creative can do that, too.”

The parties start at 5 p.m. with a snack and a chat about what will be prepared. At 7 p.m., the cooks gather for the meal around the table in the Willsies’ dining room. “Sometimes I join them, but not always,” she said. “We talk about what we’ve prepared and how it went.”

Ms. Willsie likes to introduce participants to ingredients with which they might not be familiar. Among her current favorites are fish packed in salt, and cedar plank salmon. She adds unusual herbs and vegetables such as nettles and wild mushrooms, often from her garden, at every opportunity.

Ms. Willsie’s troubles began after feature stories about Ezekiel’s Table appeared in U.S.1 and the Trenton Times. “Somebody in the zoning department thought it was too big to be a home occupation,” Ms. Willsie recalled. “They brought in the regional health department and the fire marshal. There were various things they felt you had to have, which I didn’t, to be considered a commercial kitchen.”

When Ms. Willsie was told in 2009 that she would have to build a commercial kitchen in order to continue the business, she opted to close it down. “It was really sad,” she said. “But I just couldn’t consider that.”

After about a year of trying, the Willsies landed an appointment with Nikki Graham, then the legislative aide to Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman. “She took it to the legal department of the state, and they reinterpreted the description of a retail food establishment to say it didn’t include home cooking classes,” Ms. Willsie said.

Now, with approval from the Regional Planning Board, Ms. Willsie is back on track. The kitchen can stay as it is.

“I feel like I have been up close and personal with my township now,” she said, with a smile. “I understand that they are doing their job. They are setting a precedent. But the ordinances as they are written today are really outdated. So many people are working from home, and it seems that everyone this came in front of agreed. Nobody should have to go through what I did.”

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